In his essay “Compensation,” Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a surprising claim: “Every soul is by this intrinsic necessity quitting its whole system of things, its friends, and home, and laws, and faith, as the shell-fish crawls out of its beautiful but stony case, because it no longer admits of its growth, and slowly forms a new house.”
Branka Arsić unpacks Emerson’s repeated assertion that our reality and our minds are in constant flux. Arsić’s readings of a broad range of Emerson’s writings—the Early Lectures, Journals and Notebooks, and later lectures—are guided by a central question: what does it really mean to maintain that everything fluctuates, is relational, and so changes its identity?
Reading Emerson through this lens, Arsić asks: How is the leaving of one’s own consciousness actually to be performed? What kind of relationship is predicated on the necessity of leaving? What does it mean for our system of values, our ethics and our political allegiances, and even our personal identities to be on the move? The bold new understanding of Emerson that results redefines inherited concepts of the Emersonian individual as all-composed, willful, appropriative, and self-reliant. In its place, Arsić reveals an Emersonian individual whose ideal being is founded in mutability.